A singer jazzes up her cooking

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Erin Dickins.

WHEN ERIN Dickins eats steak frites, she always thinks of Leonard Cohen.

Dickins, a founding member of the Manhattan Transfer, was playing a festival gig in Paris with the vocal group and the storied poet/songwriter in 1974. Afterward, Cohen directed them to a little bistro off the Champs Elysees, and she tried the French classic - topped with butter, but of course.

"I've loved it ever since," said Dickins, who divides her time between homes in Phoenixville and on the Eastern Shore.

Music and food have naturally gone together in this jazz vocalist's world.

Dickins grew up in a musical family in New York City. Her dad was a self-taught musician and her mother was a Rockette - and a fantastic cook.

"Dinner was sacred in our house," she recalled.

Dickins exited Manhattan Transfer after five years, switching focus to what would be her hugely successful next career as a studio singer in NYC.

Besides singing backup for the likes of Bette Midler, James Taylor and the Talking Heads, Dickins added her lilting tones to advertising jingles. You've heard her asking the musical question, "Have you driven a Ford lately?" and suggesting that there's more for your life at Sears.

She was making good money while spending more time cooking and entertaining at home. She took courses at the New York Restaurant School and taught herself the methods of famous French chef Auguste Escoffier. In the late '70s she opened a Manhattan eatery called Possible 20, a hangout for theater types and studio musicians, which she still was.

Dickins' friend and publicist Sharla Feldscher convinced her to connect the dots between her two great passions.

The result? Sizzle & Swing: Jazzin' Up Food (Comteq Publishing), which brings both those loves to the table. The cookbook, out last year, pairs food memories - told in a breezy, chat-over-the-fence tone - with easy-to-follow recipes.

Sizzle & Swing also comes with a soundtrack, a CD called "Java Jive" that pairs Dickins' lush vocals with songs that speak to her life and times. Along with her book, Dickins has launched a line of herbal seasonings under the same brand name, Sizzle & Swing.

The singer chose the tracks for different reasons. For instance, she pairs "Je Cherche Un Homme," a lovely French ballad that reminds her of her time in Paris, with the steak frites recipe.

She returned to her roots with a remake of "Java Jive," the original Ink Spots hit that she recorded on the Manhattan Transfer album "Jukin'."

"That song just reminds me of the early days in my career, when we'd be sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and singing for hours on end, developing the vocal harmonies that became Manhattan Transfer," she said. "On Sundays, singers Pat Rosalia and Gene Pistilli would often make zeppole, an absolutely sinful Italian pastry made by frying dough laced with ricotta cheese. It tastes a little bit like a beignet. We washed it down with strong - almost syrupy - black coffee."

Recording the CD resulted in a vocal reunion of the original three male members of the Manhattan Transfer - Dickins' longtime friends Tim Hauser, Marty Nelson and Pistilli - all of whom sang backup vocals on the track. Rosalia passed away in 2011. Hauser was still recording and performing with the Manhattan Transfer when he died last October.

Other tunes in this matched set include "I Just Found Out About Love," "Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast" and "Walkin' With Your Barefeet On."

Cooking with Dickins' accompaniment adds a cabaret note to the kitchen vibe, and the recipes are approachable and laced with sage advice, like: "Do yourself a favor and find Julia Child talking about omelettes on YouTube. She's brilliant, and since I've learned her method I never cook omelettes any other way."

Dickins came up with the idea for her spice line as a way to add depth of flavor without a lot of extra prep time. "If you're in a hurry, you might not take the time to zest a tangerine or chop fresh herbs," she said. "We do it for you."

Available at specialty gourmet stores and on her website (sizzleandswing.net), the spice combos run $10 each and come in four flavors: chili lime and cilantro seasoning salt; Tuscan; tangerine dill; and lemon basil. Five more flavors are in the works.

"It's all very exciting to be starting another chapter," said the singer, who will tour in Europe in the spring. "Music and food naturally go together, and I'm thrilled to be taking that journey a little further with Sizzle & Swing."

 


Taste some nibbles from Sizzle & Swing during the Jazz Cocktail Hour that opens the monthly Thursday evening concert series sponsored by Uptown! Entertainment Alliance, in West Chester, at the Ballroom at Westside, 430 Hannum Ave. The series kicked off Feb. 19 with a show by Dickins, and continues March 19 with the Jason Long Quartet and a roster of live music monthly into July. Cocktails and appetizers, 6-6:30 p.m., followed by the hour-long show. $15 (apps, $5). uptownwestchester.org.


Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and

national restaurant scene for more than 17 years.